How the U.S. Can Restore Mideast Peace

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Sending Colin Powell in to replace Anthony Zinni as the Bush administration's Mideast envoy isn't enough. The secretary of state has to come armed with a new approach. The reason General Zinni's mission failed wasn't the fact that he's not a high-level cabinet officer; it was that he wasn't given the tools with which to do the job. Washington reportedly had insisted that Zinni push for a cease-fire without any link to negotiations over the political future of the West Bank and Gaza. That was never going to work — even Israel's security and intelligence chiefs had warned as much — and it left the administration standing ineffectually on the sidelines as violence spun dangerously out of control.

So Powell needs to make sure Palestinian independence is plainly stated as the final goal of any truce. Yasser Arafat has long made it clear that he won't respond to Bush's demand to crack down on terrorism until talks about the future of a Palestinian state resume. Senator George Mitchell summed up the deadlock in his report last year: The Israelis (and, apparently, the Bush administration) are concerned that linking an end to violence with political negotiations would reward terrorism, but the Palestinians believe that a cease-fire without restoring political negotiations is to acquiesce to continued occupation. The stark choice for the White House: Be consistent with its rhetoric on not rewarding terrorism, or be an effective peace broker.

A two-state solution

And President Bush gave Powell a solid sendoff Thursday with a message that both insisted that an end to terrorism is the key to progress, but also that such progress requires an end to Israeli settlement activity and, ultimately, an end to its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Clearly spelling out the ultimate destination is the most effective way of securing a cease-fire, and President Bush spoke of two states coexisting peacefully along the lines envisaged in the Oslo peace process and the recent Arab League proposal. While considerable disagreement may remain over borders and the terms of their separation, the two-state solution remains an essential point of consensus among not only Western and Arab governments, but also among at least half of Israel's electorate and at least the same proportion of Palestinians. The Bush administration needs to forcefully assert that vision — and make it more specific on issues such as sharing Jerusalem, and addressing the plight of Arab refugees in a manner that maintains Israel's Jewish majority. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

The primary question is how to get back on track to a two-state solution. A cease-fire is an indispensable step, but one that won't be taken in the absence of a commitment by all parties to go the distance. In the absence of that commitment, even a cease-fire may be wishful thinking.

Oslo's basic premise was that the Palestinians would renounce violence and guarantee Israel's security in exchange for Israel agreeing in principle to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. That Oslo's breakdown has led to a resumption of violence is no surprise; before the agreement, the two sides had been locked in a six-year intifada.

The fire this time

Right now, the Palestinians believe violence is their most effective means of ending the occupation. Sharon is determined to prove them wrong by a massive show of military force. But escalating Israeli military pressure is simply deepening the militancy of Palestinian society, and the Palestinians believe they can outlast the Israelis in a war of attrition. The reason: Israel is a relatively prosperous middle class society plugged into the global economy, and less than one percent of its population actually live in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza; but the three million Palestinians who live there are an occupied people in desperate social and economic straits. Unlike the Israelis, the Palestinians believe they have little to lose.

The Bush administration had hoped to get Arafat to renounce violence without a reciprocal commitment from Sharon to do anything more than ease up on security measures. That approach has failed. But if the endpoint is a two-state solution, then there's no harm in combining cease-fire efforts with moves to reopen negotiations over ending the occupation. The counter-argument has been that this would "reward violence." But that's simply denial of the obvious — the only reason the Israelis started talking to the Palestinians in the first place was because they were in a state of violent rebellion. The Oslo process would never have happened were it not for the first intifada. The purpose of a peace process is to create mechanisms other than force for each side to pursue their objectives. To avoid creating such mechanisms for fear of "rewarding violence" only prolongs the season of violence.

The way out

Breaking the downward cycle requires a restatement of the basic reciprocal commitments — renouncing violence and ending the occupation. Israel believes the past 18 months have proved that Arafat never renounced violence, and they're unlikely ever to trust him again. But the Palestinians believe that Sharon has never had any intention of ending the occupation, which would involve negotiating a withdrawal to something close to Israel's pre-1967 borders — positions he's always fiercely opposed.

A new American peace initiative can't be dependent on Arafat and Sharon. But it requires the Israeli and Palestinian people to consider their final destination. The bloodbath of the past month, and the past 18 months, has made the prospect of mutual trust more remote than ever. Breaking the deadlock, then, may require that they put their trust in a third party willing to enforce the reciprocal commitments for years, or even decades, to come. It may be difficult to separate the combatants, now, without an international monitoring or peacekeeping force in which both sides have sufficient trust — that suggests a dominant role for the U.S., possibly in concert with forces drawn from the European Union, Turkey, Jordan or even Egypt.

An aggressive new peace initiative designed to map out and secure the two-state separation backed by a hands-on peacekeeping commitment may be far deeper involvement than the Bush administration had ever countenanced. But the alternative may be to watch U.S. policy in the Middle East policy be slowly burned to a crisp, much to the delight of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.